Past an adobe Jiffy Lube and the Hacienda Home Center, past Woofy Bubble's Woowear in the hippie ex-mining town of Madrid, we zoom from Albuquerque to Santa Fe, capsuled in a big blue Buick. I haven't come here to nurse a chili addiction, stock up on cornhusk Victoriana, enroll in a class on mesa metaphysics, or scour the real estate boards for a second home. My mission?To inspect the state of affairs at New Mexico's restaurants. Are chili fires and salsa wars still raging through their kitchens, or have younger chefs traded fierce regionalism for a more globally minded policy?But first, some tastes of the real Southwest.
In Santa Fe, I ask two women for directions to Maria's New Mexican Kitchen, famous for its 70-plus margarita list. They laugh. "We just moved here yesterday-- from New York." I figure it's only a matter of days until they know their way there blindfolded. They'll come to renounce frozen slush and master the Cuervo Gold vs. Herradura Silver dialectic. Premium tequilas are the magnet at this archetypal cantina, also known for its chicken fajitas. But beware. Halfway through La Ultima (mixed with 100 percent agave El Tesoro tequila), my companion begins to wax lyrical about its "palpable cactoid sensation." Thin air and tequila do this to you.
Our morning-after cure is a breakfast burrito devoured in a wooden booth amid the familial clutter of rugs, pottery, and garlands of chili at Tia Sophia's. I've always dodged breakfast burritos-- wrapped-up sludge, plus beans . . . with coffee?-- but here, encased in a cheese-filled tortilla envelope, all the textures and flavors of morning come clean and intact. Lacy shredded potatoes, crackling bacon, plush scrambled eggs, surrounded by a lava of kickin' green chili.
We follow the green-chili trail to a roadside burger shrine called Bobcat Bite, just southeast of Santa Fe. Bobcat's legendary green-chili cheeseburger says "Southwestern Americana" more eloquently than all the turquoise pendants and Navajo rugs rolled into one. A plain bun toasted to a perfect tan, a hefty disk of beef, biting chili, gooey cheese. The sides are potato chips-- home fries are extra-- and a great slaw.
Of Santa Fe's baby-boomer restaurants, such as Coyote Café and Santacafé, Geronimo generates the loudest local buzz. It's partly the scene at the bar, partly the gifted new chef, Eric Distefano, but mainly it's the magic of this multiroom 18th-century adobe: tan leather chairs, corner banquettes, and piñon popping in the fireplace.
Geronimo's painterly food presentations-- does the kitchen employ a full-time sauce drizzler?-- take you back to the late 1980's. But the cooking itself is transnational-neoclassical. Prosciutto-wrapped greens, presented like Japanese hand rolls, are a cute idea, though I wish the Pollock-wannabe wouldn't stint on the basil and black-vinegar sauces. The grilled freshwater lobster with angel-hair pasta, beside a carpet of green and pink aiolis, easily trumps the art at the Canyon Road galleries next door. When you ruin the pattern by recklessly smearing the sauces over lobster and pasta, the dish is a spicy triumph. Next, a study in pink: grilled salmon napoleon with spinach and pastry in a Thai red-pepper sauce, followed by a hunk of charbroiled elk on scallion risotto, the least visual but most delicious dish.
"They were lovers but they had separate beds. She was Swiss-German, he was English." Every piece of gossip traded by the execs at a corner table is amplified by the spareness of Ristra, a year-old restaurant in a Victorian building. Though Southwestern motifs do sneak into chef David Farrell's food, his laid-back cuisine embraces the post-fusion global bistro aesthetic that's finally hitting Gen-X New Mexican restaurants. Farrell has cooked in San Francisco and Provence; his partner, Eric Lamalle, a transplanted Parisian, collects cowboy boots.
To start, a mound of mussels arrives in a coconut-cilantro broth. Brandade-- here a seared patty instead of the usual salt-cod purée-- is set on a translucent fennel-and-sweet-pepper Provençale sauté. The tamale, a husk-bundled pillow of sweet potatoes and chicken, is framed by a runny pesto that sends whiffs of a Riviera summer into the mesquite-perfumed room. Grilled wahoo with basmati rice is a miss, but the duck-leg confit has shattering skin and luxurious flesh, served with soupy lentils and a dab of green chili.
"Folks from Paguate reservation send good luck to Mike on his wrestling match," the radio chirps as we set off for Taos. Twenty minutes later we're sitting in El Paragua, an immensely popular lunch spot for Santa Feans, just off the main drag of America's low rider capital, Espanola.
El Paragua, housed in a vintage hacienda, is flawlessly típico: ceramic tiles, heavy beams, heavy chairs, heavy customers, Los Panchos trio crooning in the background. The New Mexican menu of enchiladas, flautas, fajitas, and mesquite-grilled meats is also true to form. This is the kind of place where the urge to order a "Mexican combo" is almost forgivable. After all, it comes piled with spiced chunks of carne adovada, rice, refried beans, tamale, taco . . . and mucho más. By itself, every item is delicious, but somehow it all melts into a cheese-plastered glob. The sopaipillas, however, are glorious puffs of fried dough, and the bread pudding alone is worth a trip.
At Joseph's Table, in Ranchos de Taos, four miles from Taos proper, we stare intensely at the distressed frescoed walls, trying to recognize the giant painted face in the corner. Young Elvis?An even younger Liberace?Actually, the aquiline profile is lifted from El Greco's Burial of Count Orgaz. The main room, with its gothic lighting, sagging beams, and fuzzy-wire chandeliers, feels like an East Village drag club. The wall painting in the second room delivers the weathered look of an ancient trattoria somewhere in Mantua.
In contrast to the funky exuberance of the space, young chef-owners Joseph and Gina Wrede, who trained in New York, designed a simple Italianate menu. The pizza appetizer is fabulous, a jagged crackle of dough with sweet sautéed onions, pungent Gorgonzola, and biting cracked pepper. The gnocchi are feather-light, stuffed with white-truffle paste (at only $8!) and glazed with a tangy balsamic reduction.
When the scallop risotto turns up tasting like something run over by a snowboard, the waiter merrily whisks it back to the kitchen. Waiting for its replacement, we share my steak au poivre with "smashed" red potatoes and mushrooms. It's asphalted with black pepper, but scrape off the poivre and it's a beauty. The Italian spareribs and sausage are worth the wait. The ribs are juicy and meaty, and the sausage delicious, both smothered in a fabulous tomato sauce and bedded with crisp green beans. Dessert?A marvelous bread pudding, with plumped-up dried sour cherries and New Mexican goat cheese, floating in a pool of celestial crème anglaise.
Lunching gallery mavens, honchos in cowboy hats, and even an occasional pueblo resident all congregate at the Trading Post Café in Ranchos de Taos, which actually used to be a trading post. Sure, its wrought-iron chairs with mismatched upholstery, glass tables set with vials of balsamic vinegar and olive oil, rustic Mediterranean crockery, and baskets of sourdough bread are by now as familiar as the Gipsy Kings soundtrack, but you love being here.
The comfort-food menu is as generically persuasive as the room: competent Caesar salad; roast leg of lamb with wilted spinach, encircled by a ruffle of mashed potatoes; succulent oversize Cuban sandwiches piled with spiced shredded pork; homey desserts. Everything is clean and delicious.
On the way out of town, my friend slams on the brakes in front of a real estate notice.
"Neo-adobe, three bedrooms, a fireplace, views . . . how about it?" I should have bought him that bolo tie.
Maria's New Mexican Kitchen
555 W. Cordova Rd., Santa Fe; 505/983-7929;
margaritas $4- $29; dinner for two $18.
210 W. San Francisco St., Santa Fe; 505/983-9880;
breakfast for two $12.
420 Old Las Vegas Hwy., Santa Fe; 505/983-5319;
lunch for two $25.
724 Canyon Rd., Santa Fe; 505/982-1500;
dinner for two $90.
548 Agua Fria St., Santa Fe; 505/982-8608;
dinner for two $75.
603 Santa Cruz Rd., Espanola; 505/753-3211;
lunch for two $20.
4167 Hwy. 68, Ranchos de Taos; 505/751-4512;
dinner for two $55.
Trading Post Café
4179 Hwy. 68 (at Hwy. 518), Ranchos de Taos;
505/758-5089; lunch for two $25.
Prices do not include drinks, tax, or tip.